WHOSE RELIGION IS CHRISTIANITY? THE GOSPEL IN THE WEST. Lamin Sanneh. Grand Rapids, ML William B. Eerdmans, 2003. Pb. $12. Reviewed by Jerry A. Gladson (First Christian Church/Marietta, GA).
Trying to grasp the resurgence of Christianity in the non-Western world is like "being hit by a tidal wave and unable to hold your footing," observes Lamin Sanneh, D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity and History at Yale Divinity School. In this important study, Sanneh, a native of Gambia with lifelong involvement with non-Western cultures, concentrates on this dramatic growth, its nature, challenges, and future.
As late as the 1970s, Sanneh begins, secular sociologists confidently predicted the decline of Christianity in the face of a triumphal ascendency of Islam. Antithetically, Christianity has surged like a swelling tide. Today 60 percent of all Christians live outside the United States and Europe. In Africa, more than 16,000 per day, 6 million per year, become Christian. Within 25 years, at the present rate, there will be 600 million Christians in Africa. secular sociologists must now contend with a "great Niagara of religious fervor ... cascading down around while they stand obtuse and dry in the little cave of their own parochialism," insists David Brooks, whom Sanneh quotes approvingly (Kicking the secularist habit: A six-step program, Atlantic Monthly [March 2003], pp. 26-27).
Sanneh goes on to show how this spontaneous Christian resurgence is indigenous, arising among populations not previously Christian. It represents a conversion to God, not to theories about God of European or American provenance. This indigenous resurgence is also characterized by pluralism. It manifests itself in a variety of sociological and theological models that comport uneasily with traditional Western theological discourse. Particularly true is this, Sanneh observes, in how these new Christians speak of God. They use African names, which they fill with new content while retaining some of the old. Among the Nigerian Yoruba, for instance, Olugbala, the ancient Yoruba God, becomes the name for Jesus as Savior because Olugbala embodied notions of divine power, solicitude, and redemptive suffering. Formal Christian creeds have similarly been adapted. "He lay buried in the grave," affirm the Maasai of East Africa, in their version of the Nicene Creed, "but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day he rose from the grave" (pp. …